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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                  |29
Feeding the sparrows became a favourite pastime. The
patients began to recognise some of the birds and even
gave them names. A favourite among them was a stub-
tailed, impudent, brisk little fellow that had probably
lost its tail as a result of its pugnacious habits. Stepan
Ivanovich named it "Submachine-Gunner".
It is an interesting fact that it was precisely this
amusement with these noisy little creatures that drew the
tankman out of his moroseness. When he first saw
Stepan Ivanovich, bent almost double and supporting
himself on his crutches, trying to get on to the radiator
to reach the open ventilating pane, he watched him
listlessly and with little interest. But next day, when the
sparrows came flying to the window, he, wincing with
pain, even sat up in bed to get a better view of the fussy
little creatures. The day after that he saved a good piece
of pie from his dinner, evidently believing that this
hospital titbit would be particularly welcome to the
vociferous cadgers. One day "Submachine-Gunner" failed
to turn up and Kukushkin surmised that a cat had gobbled
it up, an that it served it right. The morose tankman
flared up and called Kukushkin a "grouser", and when,
on the following day, the stub-tailed sparrow did turn up
and again chirped and fought on the windowsill, cocking
its head and flashing its impudent, beady eyes triumphant-
ly, the tankman burst out laughing; it was his first laugh
for many months.
After a little time Gvozdev brightened up completely.
To everybody's surprise he turned out to be a cheerful,
talkative chap, easy to get on with. This was the Com-
missar's doing, of course, for he was a past master at
finding a key to fit every heart, as Stepan Ivanovich put
it. And this is the way he did it.
The happiest hour in ward forty-two was when Klavdia
Mikhailovna appeared at the door with a mysterious look
on her face and her hands behind her back and, scan-
ning each inmate with beaming eyes, inquired:
"Well, who's going to dance today?"
That meant that the mail had arrived. Before handing
the lucky recipients their letters, Klavdia Mikhailovna
made them jerk in their beds, if only a little, in imitation
of a dance. Most often it was the Commissar who was